Millions of people experience neck pain each year. In most cases, neck and back pain can be managed through physical therapy, home treatments, and medications. For a select few, neck pain can be so severe that it affects their day-to-day life. Surgery may be a permanent solution for a life free from neck pain, and one of the most common ones is that of spinal fusion.
Why would someone need surgery?
Severe neck pain is often caused by degenerating discs. To put it simply, there are three basic parts to the spine: the vertebrae, the spinal cord, and discs. Discs are stretchy tissues that separate the vertebrae and protect the spinal cord. As a person ages, these discs can degenerate by hardening, bulging, or tearing. This can be dangerous, as nerve roots are no longer being protected and the muscles around that area can become strained. This can cause severe pain. Sometimes diseased discs do not cause pain, but in many cases they cause problems. People can also damage their discs through intense exercise or through injury. In some cases, bone spurs can also develop between the discs and the vertebrae. These can pinch the nerves in the spine and cause damage as well. If treatments are not working, especially over some time with no improvements, surgery is something to consider.
How do you know if you are a candidate for surgery?
Always talk to your doctor before considering surgery. There may be other alternatives for pain relief that you have not tried, such as steroid injections or nerve-blocking procedures. These kinds of alternatives may help you to take a less invasive route. However, if pain in the neck persists there may be a need for surgery. If your neck pain is severe, cervical disc fusion is one of the best and most common surgeries available to help.
What is the procedure for fusion surgery?
The procedure itself for cervical fusion is not extremely complex. First, the patient is placed under a local anesthetic. The doctor makes a small incision in the side of the neck, and then moves the trachea and muscles and tissue slightly to the side to reach the spine. The diseased disc is identified, and a special stretcher is placed to pull apart the surrounding vertebrae. The infected disc is then cut and removed from around the spinal cord. Then, the vertebrae above and below are cut slightly to expose the inner bone marrow. A bone graft, usually taken from the pelvic bone or from a donor, is then placed in between the two vertebrae. A plate is placed and screwed into the vertebrae to hold the pieces together so that they can heal properly. The doctor then moves the inner tissue of the neck back into place, and the incision is stitched or glued closed. This surgery usually lasts between one and three hours, depending on the patient and the severity of the disc problems.
What happens next?
After the anesthesia wears off, the patient can return home. Sometimes the doctor will have the patient wear a collar to make sure the neck stays aligned and heals correctly. Hopefully, the two vertebrae and the bone graft will grow together, effectively fusing them together. In a few weeks there will be a follow up appointment where the doctor can check the progress of the graft. After the incision site has healed, there may be a scar. There is an increased chance of a scar developing if proper wound care is not followed after the surgery. Always follow your doctor’s instructions after surgery!
What are the risks of cervical fusion surgery?
In any surgery, there are general risks for complications from anesthesia or from accidents. For cervical fusion surgery, the most common side effects include difficulty swallowing and infection of the incision site. Depending on the vertebrae that were fused, some people do have less of a range of motion in the neck after the surgery. Some people also experience damage to the esophagus, trachea, or spinal cord. These effects are rare, and most people experience a return to most activities after four to six weeks.
What are the benefits to fusion?
Many patients experience partial or complete relief from their chronic neck pain after the surgery. This benefit is why most people will take the risks of the surgery, because pain management can be so difficult to navigate. Pain management can be very difficult and you may need to work with a doctor for a long time to figure out what can work for you. If surgery is something that the doctor recommends, it may be worth looking into as a long-term solution for serious neck pain. Having a pain-free life can help people return to normal functions and experience things they could not do before. It is an amazing thing.
Are there alternatives to fusion?
There are a few alternatives to fusion available for diseased discs. One very promising alternative is disc replacement. Because it is relatively new, it can be more expensive or not covered by insurance, but it is increasing in popularity because of its success. Instead of fusing the spine together, the doctor can insert a replacement disc made out of synthetic material that cushions the vertebrae just like real tissue. So far, this surgery has been done successfully many times and may be a better alternative, but it is still in the beginning stages. Other alternatives include partial disc removal, placing a spinal brace, and more procedures are being developed as well.
Cervical Disc Fusion and You
If you are experiencing serious neck pain, talk to your doctor immediately and schedule an appointment. Getting treatment quickly may prevent serious nerve damage and help you become pain-free. If your doctor has recommended cervical disc fusion, make sure to follow their instructions and learn about the process. If you are informed, you will be able to make the best decision for yourself. Take care of your body and you will have a much happier life!